(Originally posted on SidePodCast.com on May 12th, 2010)
One of the key aspects in motorsports, both physically and mentally, is momentum. It is often the unspoken element that gives a competitor the extra drive to make his machine work; it can breed confidence within one’s psyche and also in a driver’s surroundings.
Up until 1996, Olivier Panis had something of a patchy time at the sport’s top level – a couple of lucky 2nd places in retirement riddled events for Ligier was not the kind of form that had tongues wagging in the paddock; however keen observers had noticed some slight improvement from the Frenchman throughout the 1995 season, but he had still been generally out performed by Martin Brundle for the half-season that the Englishman drove. Panis was about to enter his third season at the top level and he needed to deliver. The season started in a difficult manner – the Ligier was not as competitive as expected and also quite unreliable, but in terms of driving, Panis had made that step and it was a progression that would eventually come to fruition at the 1996 Monaco Grand Prix.
For many spectator’s, the 1996 Formula 1 season was always going to be a Williams whitewash. Adrian Newey had produced another fast, if occasionally fragile machine, that was being driven on one hand a super-competitive ageing star (Damon Hill) and by a somewhat younger, wide-eyed hotshot in the other (Jacques Villeneuve). Meanwhile the then two-time World Champion Michael Schumacher was quietly struggling with a new team that were determined to make their way back to the top.
By the time Monaco had come around, Hill had a commanding Championship lead and was desperate to emulate his father Graham at the famed race, but the advantage lay with Schumacher who had claimed a controversial pole having blocked the Austrian of Gerhart Berger during Qualifying. Behind the enigmatic German, Jean Alesi was starting from third, just behind Hill and in front of the furious Berger – Panis, meanwhile, had to settle for a disappointing 14th place; the Mugen-Honda powered Ligier encountering problems on the city streets. Thus, this was the setting for what was – in my opinion – one of the greatest races and greatest drives of all time.
By now, Ferrari had not won at Monte Carlo since Gilles Villeneuve triumphed at the principality in 1981 and on race day when the skies opened and the rain fell, one could almost feel the race fall into Schumacher’s lap before the lights had even gone out. It would have been a hasty prediction – only half way through the opening lap, Schumacher had negotiated his way out of the tricky Loews corner, before sliding sideways and into the welcoming arms of the Armco barrier approaching Portiere – out. With the main threat gone, Hill in his Williams and Alesi in his Benetton pulled away into the distance, but behind them and in the pack, Panis began to pluck of competitor one by one – that momentum, that drive… on a track where passing is impossible, the Frenchman picked off Brundle, Hakkinen, Herbert and a number of others – and made it look easy, while the rookies and backmarkers behind them spun and crashed their way to an early bath and an angry team boss. By the 30th lap, only 11 cars remained once Martin Brundle spun his way out of the race.
As the track dried, the field began to feed into the pits and one of the early changers was Panis; at this stage running a confident 4th place. Although the circuit was far from dry, the Frenchman found a comfort zone that put him several levels above all the other competitors and on slicks, he reeled in the Ferrari Eddie Irvine at an astonishing three seconds per lap – Panis was even two seconds per lap faster than race leader Damon Hill at this point; but Hill was far in the distance, Irvine was close and getting closer.
On lap 33, Panis approached the rear wing of the Ferrari and his electrifying pace ebbed away – the momentum was being lost, floundering in the face of an Italian gearbox. Panis absolutely had to pass. The following tour around, the Ligier driver parked himself under the rear wing of the Ferrari – stalking rather than attacking; ascending Sainte Devote and Beau Rivage, sweeping through Massanet and Casino Square, before pressing into Mirabeau.
As the duo approached Loews hairpin, I saw one of the greatest overtaking manoeuvres that I have ever witnessed. There was no grace, no beauty and no finesse; however when Olivier Panis forced and elbowed Eddie Irvine out of the way in the middle of the 30 mph corner, my heart leapt. Everything about the pass screamed “get the hell out of my way, I’m coming through and you’re not going to stop me!” …and it was fantastic. It was forceful and direct and they never touched.
Panis ran off with third place, but less than ten laps later, Hills Renault engine gave out its last breath and not long after that Alesi’s race finished with suspension damage – Panis now led the Monaco Grand Prix, but it was not over yet. As the race drew to a close, the rain teemed down once again and soon David Coulthard had found his way onto the tail of the Ligier. The red and white Mercedes powered car clearly had more stability in the newly dampened conditions and although he punched a whole in Panis’ lead, he could not get by once he was under the Frenchman’s rear wing. Momentum lost.
There’s a wonderful still shot of Panis as he runs through La Rascasse corner for the last time before taking the chequered flag. As the Ligier runs through, one of the corner workers – a broad smile on his face – gives the blue and yellow machine an emphatic thumbs up. It summed up not only the race, but also a truly stunning drive by the Frenchman – regardless of what people may say about the retirement rate on the day, it was a near perfect drive and the right result.
Following Monaco, normal service resumed for the rest of the season. The Ligier went back to being an unreliable hulk and Hill took the title in his Williams; however that marked performance stayed with Panis through to 1997. Many forget that when Panis broke his legs in Canada just twelve months after his triumph, he was sitting third in the World Championship – bettered only by Villeneuve and Schumacher – and had come remarkably close to repeating his Monaco victory in Spain, were it not for a stubborn Minardi in the shape of Shinji Nakano. On that day in Barcelona, Panis was pulling in race leader Jacques Villeneuve at nearly 2-seconds-per-lap on a circuit not known for passing – again, but when Panis rolled up to the back of Nakano, he could not get by. Momentum lost.
Although, there were flashes of brilliance thereafter, Panis never quite recovered from his accident. Apart from a year off in 2000 when he tested for McLaren, the Frenchman often found himself in either horribly uncompetitive machinery or with perennial midfield teams in the midst of power struggles. Once again the momentum was lost. Panis retired from Formula 1 at the end of the 2004 season following ten full seasons in the sport and while he may never have had the necessary quality to be a World Champion, the ability to pick up more race victories in the right equipment was definitely there. Sometimes though……..